You lie still when he finishes. He doesn’t say anything at first. Just stills his hands and pulls back. He sits up. I’m sorry. I crossed a line. I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve asked first. His words are flat, monotonous. You don’t think he means them. He won’t look at you.
He stands, pulls his shorts on, tugs his t-shirt over his head, and leaves you lying there naked and cold. The sheets are bunched up by your feet, but you don’t reach for them as you once would have. Paralyzed by fear, the acrid taste of terror bitter on your tongue. Your breathing’s ragged. Your skin feels rough and raw, chaffed from his scratchy beard and his rough insistence. It’s not the first time he’s done this, far from it. But it’s the first time he’s been so callous afterwards. Usually he’d break down and apologize and cry and make you feel guilty, so fucking guilty for not saying yes.
Somehow, this is worse.
He’s not gone long, maybe five minutes. You can hear the door open and close downstairs. The dull whir of the fan overhead hums in your ears. You stare at the ceiling. His footsteps pound on the stairs, heavy. He only let his dogs out. Get dressed, he says when he pushes the bedroom door open. When you don’t move, don’t speak, don’t do anything, he grabs your clothes off the floor and throws them at you, too hard to be playful. The button of your jeans stings on contact. You’ve gotta get to class, remember?
Right. Class. You’re supposed to watch Frost-Nixon and take notes before your test next week. Your professor takes points off if you’re not there, even for the movie days. Last class you need to graduate; can’t mess it up this late in the game.
He moves to make you sit up, to force your clothes over your head like a damn doll. Coupled with a surge of urgency, it’s enough to get you up, to pull away from him and dress yourself and grab your backpack. You don’t speak to him while he walks with you.
He doesn’t say anything either. He’s never silent, always has to find some way to fill the space between you with chatter. He’d usually ask about the plan for your family vacation this year—he’s invited along—or otherwise ramble about his job at the movie theater, some manga he’s reading, complain how inconsiderate his parents can be when they get up in the morning. He doesn’t like dead air, the way it builds up between you both until it’s suffocating. Like it is now.
You hold your phone in your hands. It’s a beautiful July afternoon, all green grass and blue skies and yellow sun, without that oppressive suburban-D.C. humidity common this time of year. After Frost-Nixon, you find a quiet spot on campus, half in the sun, half not, where you can be alone. Where you can think. Your mind hasn’t turned off in the last five hours, running in never- ending circles. You feel like you might be sick from the building headache.
You spend an hour debating what to say; nothing seems right. There’s no right way to approach this. But of all your friends, Max will understand the best. Max will know what to do. Your fingers tremble as you type out the words, Max, I need to tell you something awful and I need your help. He is always quick to respond, to offer support and whatever else he can give, even though he is hundreds of miles away in Iowa. But you can’t get the words out, you can’t own up to them. So you sugarcoat it. You pad the reality with soft phrases and vague sentences. Make it sound like you’re asking for help with a friend who never listens to what you have to say. You’re scared of how he’ll react to the truth.
But Max’s advice is sound, as always is: Talk to him. You won’t get anywhere unless you talk to him.
That night, anxiety gnaws at your stomach and keeps you awake while your mind cartwheels. You can barely focus during work the next day, a dangerous habit for a lifeguard. You yell at running little kids and make sure they don’t drown during the swim meet, but for the life of you, you can’t remember which team won or lost.
When you finally get home and shower, you’ve run out of stall tactics. You fiddle with your phone, curled on your side in your favorite blue recliner, your head pillowed on the armrest, your knees drawn in to your chest. Your mom is only feet away, completely oblivious.
Max is right, you tell yourself. This is a conversation that needs to be had.
Your shaking thumbs type out, We need to talk about yesterday.
His reply is immediate, like he’d been hovering by his phone and waiting to pounce—we do.
You crossed a line yesterday—deep breath, rattling in your lungs, before you hit send and watch the little speech bubble pop up on the screen, bright blue. His own words, repeated back to him. You want to run away and hide and protect whatever parts of yourself he hasn’t shattered, but those parts don’t exist anymore. You close your eyes and wait for his response.
The conversation devolves into his typical self-deprecation, weaving your fear into guilt and regret. I’m horrible. I’m bad. I’m an abuser, he writes. Do you think we should break up? That scares you more than anything—you were going to spend forever with him. That’s what he said. You’re stuck with me. We’re soulmates. Deal with it.
You can’t break up. You can’t.
You tell him you want to fix things, that there are aspects of the relationship worth saving. The way he listens to you, like when you ramble on for hours about work or a book you’re reading or some stupid movie you caught on TV. The gentleness with which he treats your autistic cousin. How he looks at you like you’re the greatest thing to ever happen to him. The three years you’ve spent building something meaningful with another person, a person that has always seemed to just get you. Well, except your aversion to sex, he’s never understood that. But surely those things, the good things, are worth saving? Surely he could come to understand your boundaries, even after he’s ignored them so many times? It started innocently enough, after all. He backed off after the first time he asked to have sex, when you broke down crying that you weren’t ready. Only started pushing for more months later. But then pushing turned to begging, and the begging wore you down. Over nearly two years, it wore you into the ground. When he finally got what he really wanted, you were too withered to assert your boundaries yet again.
But if you had, at some point in the year since then, he would have listened. Would have stopped. Realized his mistake. That’s what you tell yourself, anyway. You’re good at convincing yourself of these things. So good, in fact, that you’re willing to give him one more chance. He says he wants to fix things, to rebuild the broken trust between you. He wants to be better for you.
You go upstairs to your bed, not sure if you believe him.
Sitting in Sophie’s recently-renovated kitchen, over a month later, you laugh about something she and her friends got up to at William & Mary. Some party they went to, how high they got. You’re smiling and nodding along as she waves her hands emphatically, but you’re only half paying attention. You want to tell her what’s been going on—you just don’t know how. She’s your best friend—has been since you played field hockey together in high school—you can tell her anything. You want to. But your throat feels tight as you sip on water, wishing you were better at these things. You’re breaking inside, sharp edges tearing you apart every time you breathe.
You leave Sophie’s house right at six thirty. Your heart pounds the whole drive home. A few tears creep down your cheeks when you pull on to your street. But it’s not hard to wipe your eyes and put a bright smile on when you walk in the door and greet your parents. You’ve done this many times before.
You finish dinner to find three text messages from Sophie. The first thanks you for coming over. The second includes a picture of Sophie snuggling with one of her cats. The third is full of concern, saying you seemed distant and she wants to make sure you’re okay.
You don’t know how to respond. Of course Sophie noticed something was off. She’s always been able to read your moods better than almost anyone. You thank her for having you over. You wish her well on her upcoming semester at school. And then, slowly, you type out that you want to tell her something, something you’ve never told anyone.
She’s gentle, gives you space and asks probing questions. She seems to know, intuitively, your boyfriend is the root of your troubles and starts there. It doesn’t take long for the whole story to come tumbling forth, a dam bursting inside you as your thumbs fly over the screen of your phone, first answering her questions and then telling her more, more, everything you can get out.
You’re seized by a desire for someone to know, for someone to understand, for someone to tell you what to do, because you’re not sure you can live like this anymore.
And Sophie offers those things. It’s not my place to make your decisions, she says. But do you think you would be better off without him? He’s hurt you so badly, but it’s for you to decide. If you want to fix things with him, I will respect that too. But is that really the best option? Take your time and think about it. You don’t need to have an answer right now. She finishes with, Thank you for telling me these things. I’m here to support you, whatever you need.
Her words rattle around in your head. Breaking up seems more and more like the only way to protect yourself. But you’re not sure you have it in you. You’ve never been good with confrontation. You cower and cry and never get a word in edgewise, especially with him. He won’t look at you and says his part—I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, I’m a bad person, stop saying you’re broken I can’t hear that—and thinks that’s all that matters. You know if this happens, he’s going to say his piece and you’ll never get the chance to share yours.
Sophie suggests writing him a letter. You consider it, but you need more time. You need to think. It’s so much to think about.
You wake early Sunday morning, gasping for air in the throes of a panic attack. Clutching your quilt, you roll over and bury your face in your pillow. Your huddled, naked body prone on his bed sears in your mind. Him hovering over you, his nails clawing at you, the heat of his bare skin pressed against as much of you as he can touch. His lips tickle your ear as he growls, Unless you tell me no, I’m going to do whatever I want. And then the force with which he—no, no, no, don’t think about that. His voice still rings in your ears. You ache in every part of your body.
Once you can think a little clearer, when his voice isn’t quite so loud, you text Max, praying he’s already awake. You tell him everything, as best you can. He understands quickly what you’re trying to say. He tells you Sophie is right. You need to break up with your boyfriend. He understands you’re not ready. You cry and thank him, over and over again, for being so kind and wonderful when he doesn’t have to be. He says it’s nothing, you needed him and he wants to help—you’re friends, that’s what friends do.
You push back your comforter and cover the ten steps from your bed to the bathroom. You blanch at the bags under your eyes, the way your tank top hangs off you in ways it didn’t months ago. Your stomach twists. The constant panic has taken its toll. You’ve lost sleep, you haven’t been eating. You can’t keep living like this, you decide, studying your hunched and trembling reflection. You need to break up with him. You need to save yourself.
It doesn’t take long. That morning—after a breakfast you barely tasted, your heart still shuddering and hands quaking from the aftershocks of that panic attack—he texts you, asking what’s wrong. You haven’t been acting right, and he’s worried about you.
You write that you can’t do this anymore.
He thinks you mean Dungeons and Dragons. He thinks you’re worried about playing tonight. He thinks you’re flaking on the game he’s so excited about running. He tells you he cares about you. That you can tell him anything. Your parents are out back, pulling weeds and throwing a ball for the dogs to chase. So you let your trembles devolve into shuddering sobs.
That’s not what you mean, you type. You can’t do this anymore. This relationship. You can’t keep having nightmares of him hurting you. You can’t keep waking up in the midst of panic attacks. You don’t want to live like this anymore. You don’t want to be scared anymore. But you don’t want to lose him. You want to fix things. Really fix them.
But even over text, he’s not listening to what you’re saying.
A relationship shouldn’t make you feel like this. Don’t you agree? You shake as you type out that you do.
And it’s over. Just like that. He used to threaten to break up whenever you wouldn’t tell him you loved him. He’d corner you and guilt you into begging for his forgiveness. You know he means this, but you don’t know how you feel. There’s so many things you wish you’d said. You hold yourself together long enough to drive over to Sophie’s house, before you collapse into her bed and cry until your head pounds and aches as much as your chest does.
Halfway through Sophie trying to cheer you up, an idea strikes you. You need to get all your stuff back from him. You accept his offer to come over to his house on Tuesday, and though you break down crying again when you drive home, you’re able to feel a little better about yourself. You don’t let yourself hope, but you don’t want to give up without talking through this. In person.
What kind of person breaks up with someone over text, anyway? Insubstantial words on a glass screen mean nothing. And that’s what you’re really scared of, isn’t it? That all of this really is meaningless to him. Maybe if you can just talk to him… he’ll at least convince you otherwise.
You follow Sophie’s advice. You write a letter, use it to convey every last ounce of how much you love him, the words flowing on paper like they never seem to with your voice. And as soon as he opens it, you curl in a ball around your purse, on the couch right next to his front door— he didn’t even invite you in properly, to the comfier living room downstairs.
He reads the letter and puts it down on his coffee table. It’s pouring rain outside. You can’t tell which is louder—your sobs or the pounding of rain on concrete beyond the picture window behind you.
He won’t look at you. His eyes are glued straight ahead. His words ring hollow in your ears—I don’t love you anymore. I think it is best we break up.
The whole ordeal lasts less than twenty minutes. You take your things and drive home. You text Sophie. You text Max. You text your mom that he won’t be coming to the beach with you next week. It’s not until later, until the sadness fades to numbness and the anger begins to set in, that his words really hit you. I don’t love you anymore. But he still did all those things to you… without any sort of excuse to hide behind. Your anger burns hot and deep. Anger at him, for all the ways he made you feel guilty, for all those sweet whispered words that tugged at your conscience and pulled you in closer even though they meant nothing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, so long as he got what he wanted in the end. He always got what he wanted, whether you said yes or not.
And anger at yourself for letting it happen. Your relationship lasted three years. You’re afraid to admit how he buried himself deep inside your mind, how his grip was so hard to wiggle out of. How you told yourself everything was fine, because that meant it was easier for you to get through each day.
It takes a few weeks. But you find a routine, once you start lifeguarding at an indoor recreation center and you have therapy on Fridays. It’s slow going. This new therapist doesn’t pick or pry too quickly, letting you advance at your own rate and discuss small new pieces in time instead of all at once. You were right—the weight of all he did to you was too much for to bear on your own. At least now you have someone to share it with.
It’s your birthday. October sixth. Your friends are throwing you a small party at their apartment—you’re the last in your friend group to turn twenty-two, and they want to celebrate. You get there at seven o’ clock, almost on the dot.
Your ex-boyfriend was invited, too. They were his friends first, after all. Erica wanted the whole group together for this, just like old times. He shows up ten minutes late, while you’re complaining to Erica about studying for the GRE. Ian lets him in. He doesn’t say a word, not even hi, just slinks down in a chair pulled up to the card table and hides behind his phone. Erica’s roommate, Xander, just looks at him, then looks at you, and shrugs, not knowing what to say.
You haven’t told them what he did to you. You’re not ready for everyone to know, and besides, how could you? After almost every game night or party he’d say, Soon enough they won’t want to hang out with me anymore. Just you. I always get left out in the end. You don’t want to take what few friends he has away from him.
He’s sitting at the far end of the table, and still won’t speak. Xander is the next to try to tease out some sort of response, then Erica, to no avail. The air sits heavy across the table as you all fidget and shrug and scramble for something to say. Xander stands and disappears into one of the bedrooms, returning with an unwrapped box in hand. He drops it on the table in front of you and says he was going to give this to you after dinner, but there’s no point in waiting. Happy birthday.
It’s a box of the new Magic: The Gathering set that came out last week. You divvy up the thirty-six packs of cards as equally as you can among the five of you gathered around the table.
You all set to opening them, like you do every time a new set comes out. At the far end of the table, he cracks the packs with mechanical efficiency, sorting through the cards and laying them out in front of him in ordered piles. You take your time, reading through each card before you sort them. Your piles aren’t as neat. Around the table, Erica and Xander and Ian enthuse over the cards they’ve pulled. But the atmosphere is muted. There’s no squeals of excitement over some rare card, no gasping over the shimmer of a foil print.
Xander tries to ask him about work. Asks him about his apartment search. Tries anything to get him to talk. But the silence from his end of the table grows thick, and as you rip open your final pack, you try to find something to say. Something to talk about. You come up empty.
Erica grabs her cell phone from an end table to call to check on the pizza she ordered over an hour ago. She disappears into the kitchen, her voice low on the phone even though it doesn’t have to be. Xander picks up their dog, shuts her in the bathroom. It’s just you, and Ian, and your ex-boyfriend at the table, sorting through cards until Ian asks you—just you—if you want to come see his band play sometime. You don’t even have time to answer. On Ian’s left, your ex-boyfriend stands, he just stands, grabs his bag and walks past you, down the short hallway. You lean to the right in your chair slightly, your mouth opening, partly in shock and partly to call after him, and watch as he slips his shoes on, opens the door, and leaves.
You look at Ian, half out of his chair, ready to chase after him.
Erica thanks the pizza place on her phone, comes back from the kitchen, asks where he went.
You and Ian both shrug and say you don’t know.
She holds up her hand. Says she’ll text him. You remind yourself you haven’t told them what he did to you. They think this is just any other break-up. Normal.
Her phone lights up a minute later. Erica reads it, frowns, shows it to Xander, then passes it over the table for you and Ian to read. I’m a bad person. Don’t talk to me. This is the last you’ll hear from me. Followed by, Stop texting me.
Erica offers to call the cops, to let them deal with him. But you shake your head. If he’s planning to hurt himself, that would only push him over the edge. His next text only seems to confirm that. You all will be better off without me anyway.
He said those same sorts of things when you were dating, all the time. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m nothing without you. If we break up I’ll probably kill myself. I can’t imagine living without you.
Erica’s hand hovers over her phone, debating calling the police. But instead, she stands and grabs her car keys. He’s going home, she hopes. She promises to go after him, make sure he’s safe.
You’re at a loss. Fear for his life, anger for how’s he’s treated you, how he’s hurt you, bubble under your skin. Your mind whirls. But this isn’t your place. Not anymore. He did this to himself. He abused you. He raped you. You don’t owe him a damn thing. Your shoulders shake a little. But your words are steady when they tumble out of your mouth before she turns for the door. “Good luck.”
Rebecca Burke resides in the greater Washington DC metro area. She graduated from George Mason University, and will be returning in the fall to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She is committed to using her voice to speak up for sexual assault survivors. You Too is her first published piece, with further work forthcoming in the Same. You can follow her on Twitter @BeccaBurke95.