I’m not going to tell you about my cousin’s and my rape. He was an asshole, but he came by it honestly.
His mother, my aunt, killed herself when he was a baby. His father was in prison for life on murder charges. Florida’s CPS had placed him with our grandfather, as my sister and I were placed with our grandmother when we were taken away from our own dysfunctional parents. Our grandfather was abusive, so he ran away. He moved in with us when he was 12 and I was 14. He’d already been in and out of Boot Camp and Juvenile Detention for dealing drugs and petty theft. He proceeded to use my body as a punching bag to vent his anger over all the injustice he’d suffered in his life.
I was once sitting at the living room table our grandmother had painted a delusional yellow in one of the chairs with the lurid, smiling sun backs. I said something to piss him off and he threw an unsharpened pencil across the room carefully aimed to miss my head by an inch. It hit the chair I was sitting on and broke it in two. I remember knowing he could kill me. I remember knowing he knew that he could kill me. But what that made me feel was rage, not fear. Rage that he was stronger than me, that I could not protect myself. So I provoked him, over and over, trying to prove to myself that I could survive.
Once, just once, I won.
I was 17. It was early morning before school and it was still dark. We were both seated at the garish yellow table. I don’t remember what the argument was about this time, but I do remember there was a six pack of Coke on the table in front of us. I took one and opened it. Then I reached over, and I dumped it over my cousin’s head. And then I ran like hell. I made it to my old Chevy Caprice Classic, slammed the door, and peeled out of the driveway just as his retaliatory can came shooting towards me. It hit my driver’s side door and caved it half-in, but I was off, and I had won!
I made it to school, and about twenty minutes later the band teacher came in and asked me if maybe I’d left my keys in my car? I went out to the parking lot. Not only had I left my keys in the car, but I had also left the car running, the headlights blazing, and the driver’s side door wide open. That’s how charged I was and shaken.
Our rape came some time after that. I honestly don’t remember the details—like so many of my memories from that grimy log cabin in the Southwest Florida swamp, I see it as though through ancient, yellowed glass. I never told. He was not “caught”—for that, at least. Even at the time, I shut it in a dark corner of my mind—and had migraines every day for a year and a half that no one could discover the cause of but that mysteriously vanished the second he went back to Juvie.
I was legally emancipated when I turned 18, and I ran. He didn’t last much longer. A year after I left, he got high and tried to rob a liquor store while naked. The police came. They say he fired two rounds of blanks on them and then turned a real bullet on himself. While high. And naked. While holding a case of liquor. I have thoughts about that story. He was only 17.
Still, rape stories are a dime a dozen, even if I could see all the hard edges clearly, even if I felt like painting them. But I sometimes wonder what the pervasive narrative that women are waiting victims does to our psyches. Do we really have to choose between a sense of self and a sense of safety? In a world where the reality is that most women will face some form of violence at the hands of men during their lives, must we always weigh our shoulders down with fear? Or can we hold that knowledge some other way? Are we as vulnerable as we think? And is it worth carrying that fear with us at all times, even if we are vulnerable?
When I was almost twenty, I went camping by myself in the mountains outside of Sedona, Arizona. Familiar story: girl plans spring break trip with college boyfriend. Girl and boy break up before trip. Girl defiantly takes the trip, anyway—she’s not scared to go alone just because she’s a girl!
I got a tip on where to stay for privacy from a local guide I met at the hostel I stayed at the first night. So I shouldered my new, green Kelty 45-pound-rated, long-distance pack, and I hiked out into the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have much trouble finding the place that the guide had mentioned, nestled down between sloppy boulders (like some giant playing sand castles on the beach) with a view out over a cliff ’s edge and into the wide-open sky. I nestled down for the night, pitched my not-boyfriend’s tent, cooked my dinner over my own new camp stove. It was glorious. Until it got dark. There’s not much to do after dark when you’re camping alone when there’s not much to do. I went to bed at around 8 o’clock, though I wasn’t even remotely tired.
Which meant that I mostly stayed awake.
In the middle of the night, I finally heard the sound I’d been pretending I wasn’t listening for the whole time: intruder. I was about to be raped and murdered. But what was I going to do? I had made sure that I was remote and hidden so I would not be found. I had little choice but to tuck my head deeper in my sleeping bag and not-pray because I was an angry atheist at the time. I must have fallen back to sleep at some point, because I definitely recall waking up. And I still was. Thank you, Descartes. I stumbled out of the tent and discovered my would-be assailant was merely a very small thief. A rodent, probably, who’d broken into my pack and pilfered my last energy bar (but left the wrapper for me to clean up—slob!).
When I was twenty-one, I took a gap year off from college before transferring to a new school in New England. Part of that year, I work-exchanged at a hostel in Southern Louisiana. I had been warned repeatedly off taking Greyhound buses. I’d been told, specifically, the bus depot in Lafayette was “shady.” Ignoring that, I slumped off the bus in Lafayette, bleary-eyed after three days of travel and not much sleep. (I was coming from a commune in upstate New York where I’d been teaching high school.) I hadn’t bothered to get directions from the depot to the hostel beforehand. I knew it wasn’t far. I trusted I’d figure it out. So I stood blinking, looking for a sign, as the other people, met by family and friends, hopped in their own cars, drifted away.
There were just one or two people hanging out now.
A wiry black kid near my cousin’s age came up to me, offered to show me the way. That was generous. I was lost. I gladly said yes. I shouldered my pack and followed him out into the street. It was about a two-mile walk. Halfway there, a middle-aged black man sidled up and tried to score some drugs off my guide.
“Get outta here,” he said. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
We made it to the hostel without further disruption. The most uncomfortable part of the walk was the end when he asked me if I could get him a job, but I felt like they’d barely taken me on, and they really didn’t need someone else. But I mentioned it to the owner, anyway, who said no.
A year or so later, I was walking with my girlfriend through Harvard Square—that bastion of liberalism—completely free and unfettered, holding hands on a Saturday afternoon in broad daylight. Suddenly, we were surrounded by a group of twelve or thirteen white prep-school boys in preppy sweaters who started taunting and jeering at us.
My girlfriend dropped my hand, put down her head, and slunk away without saying a thing. The boys circled round me, a wall of hatred and feral teen-boy energy that I knew well. I smelled their sweat as they closed tighter and tighter around me. The ring-leader got up in my face, took out a canister of silly string, and blew it all over me. Without skipping a beat, I took it off and handed it back to him. I looked him square in the eyes and told him that belonged to him, not me. His eyes widened, and he looked like the child he really was for a second, though he was a good foot taller than me. He said, “I’m not afraid of you.” Then he turned tail and scuttled away; his posse followed after him.
And I was left alone with the girlfriend who dropped my hand and slunk away. And she was left alone with the girlfriend who didn’t.
Two months later, I had a similar experience, though I was by myself this time in Penn Station headed for a cross-country train, weighted down again by my pack. I was being followed by another young, white hoodlum—this one near my age. He’d been tailing me, at what he must have thought was a covert distance, too long for it to be a coincidence. I ducked around a few corners just to be sure, but that did not shake him. So I stopped. I turned. I waited for him to catch up. He was still pretending as he slunk closer. “Why are you following me?” I said. He met my eyes, startled.
“What? I’m . . . I’m . . . Not.” And then he practically ran away, like the last ones. It turns out cowards mostly do when you look them in the eyes.
Fast forward several years. I’m pushing thirty and just coming off of another devastating long-term relationship. In order to purge myself, I’ve gathered all my pennies and boarded a plane to Florida. I’m not entirely sure why. My plan is to bike from Miami to Key West and back, but I’ve taken a pit stop through Naples, first, to revisit some of the old haunts. Not the people, though. I haven’t been back since I left but everyone from that log cabin, beside my sister, who moved to Atlanta, has already died—my cousin, my grandmother, and their other enablers.
I’m standing by the on-ramp to Alligator Alley, my thumb getting itchy and sunburnt as I wait to be picked up. My pack is getting heavier by the minute, and my back is sweaty beneath it. Everyone is going my way. There are only two stops between Naples and Miami— the Seminole Indian Casino (and lone bathroom break) and Clyde Butcher’s Photography studio, housed in what used to be the country’s smallest post office, where my grandmother once forced me to go “swamp slogging”—trudging out into the mocassin and mosquito-infested Cypress Swamp in chest-high waders—with the maestro himself to see how he captured his famous shots.
I am half crazed with sunstroke when a large, loud pickup finally stops for me. The redneck inside looks me up and down with a charming smile and an angry gleam in his eyes that feels familiar and tastes like danger.
“You headed to Miami?” he says
“Toss your pack in back.”
I climb up into the cab beside him, and he takes off. It’s a two hour drive between Naples and Miami. I’ve never been a Pepper Spray Girl, walking quick and hunched over in the dark, waiting to be attacked and needing to defend myself. We exchange pleasantries for a while. Where am I from? (Vermont, most recently.) What does he do for a living? (A trucker, but this is the off season.) He asks if I have a boyfriend. And am I traveling alone? I tell him I have a cousin waiting for me in Miami.
He nods, nods.
We are in the middle of the state. We’ve barely seen another car in an hour. He reaches over my thigh and opens the glove compartment, takes out some gum. “You want some?” I shake my head. There is no air in the cab of his truck. The windows are up. It’s suffocating. He keeps looking me over and not the road.
So, I ask him about his mother.
He shakes himself. Like maybe he hasn’t heard me right. But he has. His mother. Where are they from, and does she still live there? What does she think about his job? Does she miss him when he’s away? Does she worry about him?
By the time we reach Miami, we’re fast friends. We’re joking and laughing like beer buddies. He offers to wait till my cousin gets there. (There is, in fact, a cousin. A different cousin. Everybody has a cousin in Miami. I’m borrowing his bike for the next stage of my trip.)
“You can’t be too careful,” the redneck says. “There are a lot of crazies out there. It’s not always safe for a young woman on the road.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I say and close the door.
I ditch my Kelty long-distance pack with the other cousin and borrow his bike, heading South on the shoulder of Highway 1. It turns out that there is one very large hill in South Florida. It’s the top of the Seven Mile Bridge, connecting Knights Key to Little Duck Key, and you’re not allowed to stop on it. I get to the end of the bridge and throw the bike down and whoop and holler and congratulate myself. Which is not nearly enough, so I call my friend who is a much stronger biker than me and let her congratulate me, too.
I stay in a cheap motel that night, but not cheap enough. I only started this quest with $200, and that is long gone by the time I make it all the way down. Even though I stay the other nights in a hammock strung between the mangroves, down over the side of the road, hidden and swinging out over the Gulf of Mexico. The night before I get to Key West, I wake up to a raccoon raiding my panniers for the nuts I haven’t bothered to remove. He almost carries the bike into the water, so I get up and we share a midnight snack.
But I am broke when I get to Key West, and it’s not a hospitable place for penniless young women.
I sit on a picnic table on the beach under the palm trees for a while, looking out over the ocean, trying to figure out what to do. The homeless men are using the beach showers that are meant to clean off the sand and the coast before you head inland to the civilized world. That seems smart, so I join them. I talk to them and learn that it’s less fun to be homeless in South Florida than you might suppose. People think it’s easy because it’s warm, but it does still get cool at night, so sometimes people put too much newspaper or other insulation around the holes and seams of their cardboard houses to keep the heat in. They don’t freeze to death like they do in other places, but more than a few have suffocated.
One of the men I meet is a wrinkled and wind-beaten middle-aged sailor, just off his ship. He tells me there’s a women’s shelter in town, and I spend hours biking around looking for it, only to discover, finally, that they only take battered women. (Probably why it was so hard to find.) So there’s no room for me there, anyway. I try a few other places with no success. By this time, it’s getting on. I run into the sailor again, and he tells me he has a spot I can share. And what are my other options at this point?
So I go with him. It’s a residential neighborhood. His “spot” is under the eaves of the window of a private residence, not of his acquaintance. He has a few boxes folded on the ground as a pallet. There’s just enough room between the bush and the window for two to sleep, if we sleep close. I warn him that I have the world’s loudest whistle in one pocket and my knife in the other, and I make sure he knows that I will use them if he tries anything with me.
He nods solemnly.
I don’t sleep that night, but he does. He is a snorer. And then, as the night goes on, a yeller. He starts screaming his head off in his sleep. I elbow him awake. “You can’t stay here if you’re going to holler like that,” I say. “You’ll be caught.”
Dawn is tickling the sky by then. “I’ve been at this spot for four nights,” he says. “This is the first time I actually slept.” He looks like a little boy as he rubs the sleep from his eyes. “I felt safer with you here.
P.L. Watts survived the Florida foster care system and worked her way through college and graduate school. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she scribbles subversive stories by day but helps the rich get richer by night. She was a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Fellow, and her writing has appeared in Bust Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, and Turtle Island Quarterly. Find her online at plwatts.com.