(Trigger warning: subjects within this piece include a courtroom, rape, and molestation.)
I sit in the courtroom, eyes fixed on the witness stand. A woman sits there. Her expression is cold, indifferent. Her hands are uncomfortably placed on her lap, and I can see her thumb rubbing the inside of her palm, internally screaming, “Keep it together.”
Our eyes meet, just for a moment, and I see what she wants no one to see – the pain of remembering what she wants to bury – the guilt of knowing nothing she says will adequately demonstrate the bitter taste it’s left in her mouth.
“I woke to him touching me,” she said in a low voice.
I’m transported back to my six-year old self and that first car ride with my uncle.
* * * * *
His fancy new car was just so cool. Instead of winding the window up with a handle, a button controlled it, and I was caught giggling at each press. While I concentrated on the modern marvel, my summer dress flapped from the cool breeze coming through the air vents.
My uncle whistled through his teeth, “You know you should be wearing a seatbelt.”
As his left hand stayed on the steering wheel, his right hand reached across me and fastened my seatbelt. His hand rested high on my thigh. His fingers squeezed.
* * * * *
I swallow hard, trying to push my own tears away. My head drops to my lap, and I wonder why I didn’t excuse myself. I shouldn’t be in here listening to this case. Sexual assault, rape. It’s all a bit much.
“You were aroused,” the lawyer says, bluntly.
I am reminded of all those other times alone with my uncle. I think about those moments we were alone, in his car, on his couch, in his living room. All the times he touched me down there. I remember how much I hated it – hated him. Nothing arousing about that.
“I don’t recall,” she says.
I remember promising myself that no man would ever touch me there again.
The lawyer asks another question, pulling me back to this moment.
“I just wanted him to stop. I remember thinking to please stop,” she mumbles.
I look up and see the same haunted look I am sharing with her. I try to push away his memory, but I feel like I’m fourteen all over again.
* * * * *
We were driving back home from an afternoon of dress shopping, and he let the convertible top down slyly smiling as my hair blew through the wind. He caressed my shoulder and told me I was pretty. A part of me enjoyed the praise. I wanted so much for the words to be true, but his touch made me recoil. I tried to change the subject and shift closer to the door, but I had nowhere to go while the car was moving.
When he finally parked in front of my home, I reached for the handle, but he turned off the engine and placed his hand on my leg.
“You’re growing into such a fine lady,” he said.
He patted my thigh for only a moment before his fingers inched under my skirt.
* * * * *
“…please stop,” her words echo in my mind.
“But you didn’t say it, did you?” the lawyer asks.
“I could have. I don’t know. I don’t remember,” she says.
The lawyer laughs. “Well, either you said it or you didn’t.”
“I – can’t – remember,” her voice cracks, and I feel the urge to jump out of my seat, to run away from these proceedings and never come back.
* * * * *
I wanted to make him stop, but what could a 90lb girl do against a 200lb brute of a man? I clenched my legs and tried to shift my weight to stop the advance, but his fingers deftly reached for that indecent place and stroked.
But he didn’t, and I didn’t stop him. I remember thinking, “Stop. Just stop,” but I never did. I sat there like a possum and played dead instead, until he heard the front door open.
He snatched his fingers away and smiled, “Happy birthday.”
He pushed open the car door. I ran inside and showered and cried and tried to wipe away the disgusting filthy feeling from my body and mind. No amount of scrubbing helped.
* * * * *
Her eyes fall to her lap as she studies her now wringing hands. She swallows back any sobs that she clearly wants to do, and I wonder how many waking hours have been spent thinking of this moment. I know even twenty years later, mine still feels fresh. It’s only been three years for her. Three years of reports, statements, court hearings. Three years of hell. How many believe her story? How many think she’s just wanting attention?
“What could I have done?” she asks.”I was drunk, and he was in my room. He was just there, standing over my bed, with this hard stance. I woke up and he was there. I felt intimidated. Like he was going to hurt me.”
“So you participated?” the lawyer asks.
“I had to. I didn’t want it, but I had to.”
“You took off his pants. You made him think you wanted it.”
“Maybe… I don’t know. I wanted to get it over with. Just get him out of my room.”
Her eyes stare straight ahead. She knows she’s lost the jury now. That she will not see justice. That she will not see the justice she deserves. She knows the law states her rapist must know she does not consent for it to be considered rape. The legal system fails her.
But I see her. I hear her. We are haunted by similar stories.
We assign our verdict, but she is not there to hear it. I never get to look her in the eye and say, “I heard you…“
The verdict comes back guilty of sexual assault. I can only hope she got our message. We heard you.