Words I Couldn't Say

Illustrated by Jessie Brown

They all said it was my fault.

“You let him do it.”

“You asked for it.”

“Stop blaming other people and take responsibility for your own stupidity.”

These were all the things that the voices in my head said.

But the truth is, my stupidity was not blaming him, it was allowing these voices to keep me quiet for so long.

We had been previously involved way back in middle school—him and I—but freshman year, I needed space. When sophomore year started, I decided to take a chance and be friends again. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. After all, we had only been 13 when things had gone downhill, and since then, we both had inevitably changed. Or so I had thought. I thought he had grown up, and he had, but not in the way I was hoping he would. He had grown physically, towering above me at about six feet; he was also bigger, stronger, and more powerful, all things that I had neither noticed when we were in a relationship nor when we were friends. I can still feel the bump on the back of my head that formed when he forcefully pushed me against the concrete wall, against my will. He had asked me to walk to the ground floor to his locker with him. He said he had left his sweatshirt there.

I had agreed, not considering the possibility of what was about to happen next and unaware that the following 15 minutes would be 15 minutes that I would never forget. He struck up a conversation on the way to his locker, small talk about some teacher we both hated. I remember saying, “I have never met a teacher who I dislike more than him.”

This was another thing that was soon to change. He was honest about leaving his sweatshirt in his locker, but he was not honest about his intentions when we reached the ground floor. He said he wanted to stay downstairs because it was quiet; we could have a real conversation without any interruptions or fear that anyone would hear us talking. But what he meant was no one would hear me say no. No one would hear me say stop. No one would hear my head bash against the concrete when he pushed me backwards or him explicitly tell me to keep my mouth shut. He checked the surrounding hallways to make sure no one would walk through. Then he turned to me, and asked if I wanted to get back together. I told him no, I was seeing someone.

This made him angry. He got close to me, which made me move further away from him.

“Stop! You wanted to talk and I’m not going to tell you lies,” I said.

His immediate response was a quiet whisper, “We’re done talking here.”

The rest is a blur. It happened so fast with so much power, I couldn’t get myself to open my eyes. I didn’t want to believe what was happening to me was actually happening. He pushed me against the wall, and grabbed my wrists. He forced himself on me. He kissed me and touched me in places that we were told to call our “no - no square” when we were children. I turned my head forcefully, and managed to get out a “stop” before he pulled my chin back to resume the attack. I didn’t want it, but I didn’t know how to stop it. He was a six foot, 180 pound man, and I was a five foot, 120 pound girl who didn’t have an escape route.

“Just keep your eyes closed, it will be over soon,” I repeated to myself over and over again. “You’re strong, if he doesn’t get a struggle, maybe he will stop.”

He didn’t stop.

The assault was emotionally damaging, but what was about to happen was incomparably traumatizing. He halted his attack for a split second, and I let out a sigh of relief. I thought it was finally over. But when I opened my eyes, I saw that he was turned around staring at something—or someone. I moved to see past him to see what exactly had captured his attention and met the gaze of a teacher, a female teacher. She was staring at us, glancing back and forth between him and me. After a few minutes of awkward staring between the two of us, she walked away. Nothing was said. No phone was call made. A female teacher, a member of a faculty whose primary job was to educate me and make me feel safe in school, had walked away. Walked away from a girl who, though she did not know personally, was part of her school community and had just been sexually assaulted. When she walked away, my mind went in a hundred different directions. Was she going to get the principal? Was she going to call the police? Was she just going to pretend she never saw it? The last was the case—she pretended she never saw it.

When the coast was clear, he turned to me, and threw me back against the wall. Grabbing my jaw, he whispered to me, “what happens between us, stays between us.” I was scared, and I was crying. In fear of what he would do if I refused, I nodded my head in acknowledgement. He finally let me go. I had never run away from something as fast as I ran from him.

I listened to him for a while. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t think anyone would care or believe me, and I was afraid that people would affirm what the voices in my head were telling me, “You agreed to go downstairs with him, you must have known something was going to happen.”

But then it hit me, almost as hard as my head hit the wall—it wasn’t my fault. I should not have been expected to know that when I walked down that flight of stairs, I was walking into the room in which I would be assaulted. It was not my fault. Many people would say I was naive to go into an unaccompanied, quiet space with a man who I had “history” with. But what happened to second chances? I was simply looking for a platonic relationship with an old companion, but he saw things differently, and would not change his view on our relationship. No matter how hard I tried. The assault was not my fault, and I should not be afraid to walk the halls of my high schools knowing I could run into him at any corner. But nevertheless, I walk the halls of my alma mater filled with the fear that I may run into my attacker and break. I should not have to be afraid in an environment in which I am supposed to learn and thrive, and I should not fear that if I were to get attacked, that no faculty would be there to support and protect me. But as I begin to think about returning to school in a few short weeks—my head filled with the memories, heart filled with fear, and eyes filled with tears—I wonder if I am making the right decision to return.