By Nancy Venable Raine
On an autumn afternoon in Boston seven years ago, when the cherry tree in my garden was the colour of orange marmalade and the sky was a flawless blue, a man slipped through the back door of my ground-floor apartment while I was taking out the trash. I don’t know how long he skulked in my home, or in what shadows. Long enough for me to lock the back door, turn my back, walk over to the sink and begin to wash the pan I’d cooked oatmeal in that morning. I was scrubbing it when he grabbed me from behind. ‘I’m going to kill you,’ he said. He dragged me into my bedroom and, using duct tape, blindfolded and bound me. He then beat me and raped me. I never saw him. Only his enormous feet.
The anniversary of my rape is the brooding axis of my year, more significant than my birthday. After all, I don’t remember my own birth struggle. But I remember every second of those three hours. Like most rapists, he was never caught, tried or imprisoned. Like all survivors, I am growing accustomed to living with an anniversary that can be marked only by silence, a silence that tastes a lot like shame. Every year I feel the anniversary coming even before my conscious mind recognises it. When the air crisps and the leaves begin to turn, I get this thing about taking out the trash. About oatmeal.
The eyes in the back of my head, the ones that are never shut, begin to burn like the autumn colours, filling me with emotions I still can’t encompass. I know how to mark my birthday, my wedding anniversary, even the anniversary of my brother’s death. But the day I was raped? How should I observe the passing of another year? After all, I did take the trash out yesterday and just this morning - the morning - I ate oatmeal standing at my kitchen window while contemplating the wild plum trees in my California garden that were turning the colour of orange marmalade.
Of course, anniversaries are celebrations. Celebrate is what I do on my birthday, with friends and family who make a fuss that I outwardly protest and secretly relish. Celebrate is what I do on my wedding anniversary, when my husband and I slip out of the humdrum and go off and do something silly that makes us appreciate our routine again. And on the anniversary of my kid brother’s death, I call my mother and we retell the story of how he carried his pet alligator to the zoo when it outgrew the bathtub - in a paper bag on a Washington bus.
I am never alone when I celebrate these anniversaries, because someone else remembers them, too. Is it possible to celebrate this anniversary alone, as alone as I was that afternoon? Celebrate in silence my slow coming to terms with the fact that I can never again be that woman who locked her door and felt safe. My husband, my mother, my friends, still suffer their own brand of helplessness when they try to imagine the content of my memory. My father, who spent his life in law enforcement, leaves the room if the subject of rape in general, or my rape in particular, creeps into the conversation. Why remind them? And dare they remind me, when they secretly hope I might be ‘over it’ at last? Silently, every year on this date, I remember with particular lucidity what it was like to be only mindless instinct, a collection of synapses and fibres, muscle and bone, organised round the single desire: to live another second.
This reduction to such bare necessities of body was an alchemy that spun not gold but something dark and polar, a terrible knowledge that to this day sits in the centre of my heart like glacial ice. Why remind people who love me it is still there? On this anniversary, more or less safe in the cradle of the day’s routine, I began to think back. To the first anniversary, when I realised that I had to stop talking about what happened to me because the people who loved me could not bear to hear it. And the second, when I pretended to myself I was ‘over it’. The third, when I realised I wasn’t. The fourth, when I was in treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome. The fifth, when I was convinced my treatment wasn’t helping and secretly wondered if I had the guts to kill myself. The sixth, during a lunch date, when I told a woman I barely knew that our meeting was occurring on the anniversary of my rape. I spoke matter-of-factly, afraid she might gather up her black briefcase and suddenly remember a dentist’s appointment. ‘My tenth was in June,’ she replied.
As the seventh anniversary hour, 3.30, approached, I made a cup of tea. I remembered a story I’d heard 25 years earlier from my friend George. In those days, work crews marked construction sites by putting out smudge pots with open flames. George’s four-year-old daughter got too close to one and her pants caught fire like the Straw Man’s stuffing. The scars running the length and breadth of Sarah’s legs looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In third grade, she was asked: ‘If you could have one wish, what would it be?’ Sarah wrote: ’ I want everyone to have legs like mine.’ Yes, I thought. When George told this story, I knew it contained a profound truth, but not what the truth was, nor that I would need it someday. Today, I understand that the self consumes misfortune like a sacred potion until the glass is empty. And this bitter elixir changes who we are. Sarah could not imagine herself without her scars. But she could imagine those scars not setting her apart. She could imagine not being alone. She was not wishing her misfortune on others, but wishing they could share it with her.
I finished my tea and realised I was too anxious to take my daily walk. The odds of being raped don’t go down because you’ve been raped once. A little past 3.30, the doorbell rang. I crept to the peep hole and looked out. It was only the local florist, a woman. The bouquet she presented was huge - yellow roses, pale orange lilies and blue irises. It was from my goddaughter, a university student who was viciously attacked and sexually molested two years ago by a pack of American college boys in a bar in Mexico. The note read: ‘You are not alone. Love K.’ No, I am not alone. There are millions of us celebrating our silent anniversaries, I thought. Someday we will all march to the Capitol carrying flowers and we will leave them on the steps. We will celebrate our anniversaries. We will give our names.
The month, the day, the year, the hour. We will stop being silent. We will stop being alone. It doesn’t have to be in the autumn. I’m not picky.